In October of 1994, I had an eight-point lead in the race for Pennsylvania governor. I was serving as acting governor at the time, while Gov. Robert P. Casey underwent a double-organ transplant to treat a rare liver and blood disorder. With just four weeks to go before Election Day, my chances looked good.
Out on the campaign trail, I received an urgent call from my campaign manager.
"Do you remember a Reginald McFadden?"
A chill covered me like a bucket of ice from head to toe. Of course I remembered him. Two years before, as a member of the State Board of Pardons, I recommended that Mr. McFadden, who was serving a life sentence for murder, be released from prison.
This can't be good, I thought.
In Pennsylvania, the Board of Pardons was created to prevent the buying and selling of criminal pardons following an era of considerable corruption. It also provides a “safety valve” for the criminal justice system for those instances in which the judge and jury simply get it wrong.
The main purpose of the board, though, is to temper justice with mercy. In the overwhelming number of cases, the facts are not in dispute. It is not the role of the board to retry each case but simply to determine if a prisoner or applicant is entitled to a second chance.
Most of those votes help clear the record of folks who had done something stupid earlier in life—offenses like shoplifting, small drug possessions. But “lifers” also appear before the board and ask that their sentences for truly heinous crimes be commuted. Poring over the horrible details of these crimes and balancing them against applicants’ progress and suitability for clemency was one of the most difficult assignments I had as the lieutenant governor.
In August of 1992, the board considered the case of Reginald McFadden.
Mr. McFadden and three accomplices broke into the home of an elderly woman 23 years earlier with the intention of robbing her. Surprised to find the woman at home, they bound and gagged her while they robbed the house and escaped. She was found dead the next day, and Mr. McFadden and his accomplices were arrested and charged with murder.
The main purpose of the Board of Pardons is to temper justice with mercy.
While Mr. McFadden acknowledged that the victim suffocated as a result of the gag on her mouth, he consistently maintained that they never intended to commit murder. He was 16 at the time of the robbery and made good use of his time in prison. He received various academic degrees and certificates and completed programs in drug, alcohol and stress management.
The board heard from numerous experts including psychiatrists, wardens, the commissioner of corrections and the judge who imposed the original sentence that Mr. McFadden was an excellent candidate for commutation. One wrote: “Mr. McFadden has grown up, received his education and undergone a major religious conversion in jail. The inmate has earned an outstanding institutional record, and his discharge plans are realistic.”
There was additional information that was known to the board but never made public: Mr. McFadden had assisted corrections personnel during two days of rioting that occurred at the Camp Hill prison in 1989. He had identified some of the ringleaders and put himself in jeopardy of retribution as a result.
The board was also assured that Mr. McFadden had strong community support and had a job waiting for him after he served an additional two years under halfway house supervision.
With all of this factored into the decision, the board voted 4 to 1 to recommend a commutation.
In March of 1994, Gov. Casey signed the order that commuted Reginald McFadden's sentence to the 24 years that he had already served in Pennsylvania prisons. In July, Mr. McFadden reported to a community corrections center in New York for a gradual return to a society.
Three months later, I learned how Mr. McFadden had used his new-found freedom just as the media was issuing its teasers for the 6 p.m. news:
The Pennsylvania Governor’s race took a tragic turn when Reginald McFadden, who was pardoned by state Board of Pardons two years ago, was arrested for the rape of a suburban New York woman. He is also a suspect in the murder of a 78-year-old woman from Long Island.
I barely had time to return to my office in Harrisburg to face the cameras with my statement:
In 1992, the Board of Pardons, on which I sit, recommended to the governor that Reginald McFadden be considered for a commutation. The governor accepted that recommendation, and in June, McFadden was released. I voted for that recommendation. I regret that decision more than any other in my career. I made a mistake that I deeply regret. My prayers and condolences go out to the victims and to their families.
I was too numb to recall the questions I received from reporters. I do remember pointing out that the pardons process was painstaking—but it is not perfect. “These are terribly difficult decisions,” I said. “Based on the evidence and recommendations we had, it seemed like the right thing to do. I’ll have to live with that mistake for the rest of my life.”
The political fallout was immediate and brutal.
My opponent went into full attack mode and overnight had a political ad on every television station in the state all but charging me with Mr. McFadden’s crimes.
Within a matter of days, my 8 percent lead in the polls had become of 7 percent deficit.
One woman was raped and another killed. I felt the pain of those families and could not pretend that I was not partially responsible.
Several key aides to my campaign wanted to go on the attack. They wanted to shift the blame to the governor, who actually signed the commutation. They wanted to remind folks that Mr. McFadden was the killer, not me. They wanted to expose my political opponent as an opportunist for distorting the facts in such an outrageous, Willie Horton way.
Instead, we lowered our campaign guns. There were real consequences to my vote for Mr. McFadden. One woman was raped and another killed. I felt the pain of those families and could not pretend that I was not partially responsible. I was tired of sniveling politicians who could not stand by their own decisions. I was determined to win the hearts of minds of the people of Pennsylvania directly and honestly. If that meant losing an election, so be it.
I have had 25 years to reflect on my decision to recommend clemency for Reginald McFadden. Given the ease with which political opponents can twist compassion into weakness, providing second chances to known criminals is always a risk. Why did I take that leap of faith on a convicted murderer?
Having so often petitioned a gracious God for the blessing of mercy, how could I deny it to others?
I was raised in the Byzantine rite of the Catholic Church, one of six siblings in a family of modest means. My parents instilled in us the importance of kindness, charity and cooperation—all essential virtues for a fair distribution of chores and a reasonable chance of equal dinner portions. And every day, we attended a Slavonic liturgy that taught us to ask one thing: Hospodi Pomiluj. Lord, have mercy. The refrain was sung by a choir or chanted by the congregation more than 50 times at each Mass.
Having so often petitioned a gracious God for the blessing of mercy, how could I deny it to others? Some might say mercy belongs in the realms of family and faith, but has no business influencing the actions of a government official. But I believe forgiveness is in fact a requirement of civilized society.
St. John Paul II understood this. In 1981, he was shot by Mehmet Ali Ağca in St. Peter’s Square. The pope—with fragments of a bullet still lodged in his abdomen—visited his assailant in prison and offered him forgiveness.
Nelson Mandela spent decades in a cell for his opposition to apartheid. When Mandela was inaugurated as president of South Africa in 1994, he invited his jailer to the ceremonies.
Mercy and compassion are more than personal options. They are the antidotes to that fear and hatred.
Franklin D. Roosevelt eloquently expressed the American brand of this compassion at the Democratic National Convention of 1936, where he outlined the mission of a great and generous country: “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the constant omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”
It was a spirit of charity that led the Board of Pardons and the governor to give Reginald McFadden a second chance. The decision likely cost me the race for governor. It cost Mr. McFadden’s victims and their families infinitely more, and to them I am deeply sorry.But as much as I regret that fateful decision, I cannot accept the alternative: a government and a society that looks with cold indifference at those who have turned their lives around and who languish in our overcrowded prisons. Too often fear and hatred drive our reactions to tragedy, and the result is only more pain, more violence, more suffering. For me, mercy and compassion are more than personal options. They are the antidotes to that fear and hatred. They are the underpinnings of what can make America not only great but good.